Home inFocus Obama’s Mistaken Palestinian and Israeli Priorities

Obama’s Mistaken Palestinian and Israeli Priorities

Asaf Romirowsky Winter 2010

Sixty-two years after the establishment of the state of Israel, 30 years after the Camp David Accords, and almost 20 years after Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn, Israel remains isolated and friendless in a hostile Middle East.

While the U.S. debate over the costs of its alliance with Israel has recently intensified in the wake of the continuing U.S. recession, the United States will likely maintain its close ties with Israel, not only because of security reasons with the new regional climate marked by the removal of friendly Arab leaders, but because the American people have a strong connection with the small Jewish state. When polled, the majority of Americans regularly say that Israel is a close ally the United States should support. According to a February 2010 Gallup poll, 67 percent of Americans hold a favorable opinion of Israel while only 20 percent think favorably of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Moreover, that same poll discovered that 63 percent of Americans sympathize more with the Israelis than with the Palestinians in their situation, while 15 percent side more with the Palestinians. These results showing high American public support for Israel are statistically unchanged in recent years. Indeed, Israel is one of a surprisingly small number of countries that a majority of Americans say they are willing to defend with military force.

And yet, the Obama administration spent its first two years criticizing Israel and cozying up with the PA. Unlike U.S.-Israeli relations, which work on a give-and-take basis from both sides, the Obama administration is learning that the PA works solely on a take-only basis in which it gladly accepts U.S. benefits without giving anything in return.

Obama’s Israel Attitude

During the last presidential campaign, then-candidates John McCain and Barack Obama both guaranteed to uphold the continuation of the United States’ strong and special relationship with Israel by supporting outgoing President Bush’s proposal for increasing military aid to the Jewish state by $30 billion over the next decade, calling on the Arab states to recognize Israel as a pre-requisite to any future Israeli territorial concessions, and pledging to take an active role in the search for peace.

President Obama lived up to his final promise by taking an active role in the Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiation process during his first two years in office, which culminated in direct talks between PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in September 2010. Mere weeks after their start, however, the talks came to a grinding halt as Israel’s ten-month settlement moratorium expired and Abbas refused to negotiate unless Israel reinstated the freeze.

This was new: Abbas had previously negotiated with seven Israeli prime ministers without any prerequisites—a settlement freeze was never a stumbling block. Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over the course of two decades were made possible by a continuing agreement to disagree about Israeli construction of Jewish homes in Jewish neighborhoods outside the pre-1967 line in Eastern Jerusalem. But now, peace talks could not even begin unless Israeli construction ended. What changed?

In short, the new American president shifted course. After securing his victory, newly elected President Barack Obama altered his tone towards Israel and adopted an active policy of outreach to, and appeasement of, the Palestinian Authority, calling on Israel to halt all settlement construction, including expansion to accommodate the “natural growth” of families living in these communities. This effectively forced Abbas to go along with the policy; the leader of the PA could not ask for less from Israel than the American president. As Abbas said, “President Obama stated in Cairo that Israel must stop all construction activities in the settlements. Could we demand less than that?”

Some in the West are sympathetic to Abbas’ maneuver, which they see as a form of protest against an Israeli policy to which the United States and the rest of the Middle East Quartet, the four international players that steer peace efforts, also object. But when the Palestinians spurn negotiations unless Israel makes concessions on settlement building, they are blocking the sole path to a solution of the settlement issue, which can only be a negotiated agreement over borders.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton openly admitted that halting settlement activity is a new Palestinian prerequisite for peace talks. Settlements, she says, have “always been an issue within the negotiations.… There’s never been a precondition.” Indeed, under President Obama, for the first time since the Oslo peace process started, Palestinian leaders are openly refusing to negotiate with the government of Israel “as long as settlement building continues,” as Abbas stated.

Palestinian Priorities

The Obama administration demanded that Israel halt settlement activity from the outset because the president, along with much of the international community, is motivated in his approach to the Middle East by two false assumptions: The key to solving the Middle East’s problems resides within the Israeli-Palestinian problem, and the key to solving the Palestinian problem resides within the West Bank settlements and the status of Jerusalem.

This is faulty “linkage theory” thinking. Settlements are hardly a major concern to either party when it comes to the big picture that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; it is just an excuse used by the Palestinians to make the Israelis look like the oppressor and the Palestinians the victim. In reality, both parties are aware that the settlement issue will only be solved when final borders of Israel and a future Palestine are created, which is why both Abbas and Arafat previously entered into negotiations without a freeze on settlement construction. Additionally, if a freeze in settlements was so important to starting negotiations with Israel, the PA could have initiated a direct discussion during 2010’s ten-month settlement moratorium rather than waiting to start talks during the month that the freeze was due to expire.

Moreover, as illustrated by recent uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Libya—in which the populations staged days of protests against their governments, at times forcing their government’s collapse or resignation—the Middle East’s problems do not reside within the Palestinian-Israeli problem and solving that conflict will not ease Middle East tensions.

Nevertheless, the Obama administration adopted what the PA has defined as Palestinian prerogatives—a state on the 1967 border, and the Palestinian narrative—that Israel is the oppressor and the Palestinians the oppressed. Indeed, after emphasizing the permanence of “America’s strong bonds with Israel” in his Cairo address, President Obama predicated Israel’s existence on the Holocaust and equated it to the Palestinian Nakba—the ‘catastrophe’ of the creation of the State of Israel itself. In this view, the Palestinians are the true victims of the Holocaust, now suffering under the hands of what Palestinians call the ‘victim’s victim’: Israel. Moreover, the president endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state alongside an Israeli state without building a map on how to get there or expressing American expectations of the character and nature of the future state.

U.S. support for Palestinian statehood, despite the Palestinians’ obvious and overwhelming support for terrorism since the early 1950s, has made U.S. policy towards the Palestinians inconsistent with its fundamental policy towards terror regimes and organizations, especially since 9/11. Consequently, the most fundamental contribution the U.S. can make to stabilize relations with the Palestinian Authority is to link its Palestinian policy and its policy on the Arab-Israeli conflict with wider U.S. policy goals. Washington should inform the PA that it cannot expect to receive aid and maintain diplomatic ties as long as it maintains associations with other terrorists and Islamic groups. Likewise, the U.S. must stop falsely proclaiming the moderation and anti-terror credentials of senior Fatah officials; it sends a counterproductive message that there is such a thing as “good terrorism” as opposed to “bad terrorism.”

On the more positive side, however, Congress is starting to take notice of the administration’s refusal to confront Palestinian unyieldingness. When asked about the Palestinian leadership, House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL-18), stated, “they know they don’t have to do a darn thing; with this administration they will get a blank check, and they will always get helped out.… Try examining where they’re using their money and where our U.S. dollars are going.”

One State Solution?

When 2010’s round of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations ended practically as soon as they started, Abbas began courting the international community, requesting that nations recognize a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders. And many have, most notably in South America. Yet, pragmatically speaking, Palestinians do not want their own state alongside Israel. They are not prepared to take responsibility for their own people under the rubric of a state. The creation of a state will force them to give up the victim status they have been carrying around for over 60 years; consequently, world public opinion would be forced to judge them as a state and not as the underdog.

If the “radical” idea in the 1980s amongst Peace Now activists and others was to promote the notion of two states living side by side—one Jewish and one Palestinian—over the past 20 years there has been a slow but steady decline and rejection of two states in favor of a single state. A public opinion survey released in March 2010 and conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found “a decline in the Palestinians’ support for the two-state solution from 64 percent in December 2009 to 57 percent in this poll.” Moreover, an April 2010 poll released by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Centre (JMCC) found that “nearly 34 percent of [Palestinian] respondents favored a binational state in all of historic Palestine over the two state solution, which only 43.9 percent supported.” This is compared to the 18.3 percent of respondents who favored a binational state in 2001, according to JMCC polls.

Tactically, Palestinians believe that—given the ratio between the birth rate of Palestinians versus Jewish families—a one-state solution can effectively create a Palestinian state, removing the need to compromise or negotiate. A November 2010 poll sponsored by The Israel Project discovered that “the Palestinians perceive the two-state solution as a precursor to this entirely Palestinian state.” While 30 percent agreed with the statement, “the best goal is for a two-state solution that keeps two states living side by side,” 60 percent agreed with the alternative statement that “the real goal should be to start with two states but then move it to all being one Palestinian state.”

Moreover, according to the leaked “Palestine Papers,” since the Annapolis talks in 2007, the PA has increasingly brought up the one-state solution during negotiations with Israeli and American officials. For example, in one meeting between PA spokesman Saeb Erekat and assistant U.S. envoy David Hale, Erekat himself stated that “Israelis want the two state solution but they don’t trust. They want it more than you think, sometimes more than Palestinians.” Aside from questioning the Palestinians’ commitment to a two-state solution, Erekat’s words illustrate Israel’s commitment to peace.

No matter the rhetoric and no matter the promises to the U.S., the Palestinian leadership has never shown a commitment to creating peace with Israel. From continuing to teach anti-Israel propaganda in their school curriculum, to funding terrorist groups whose sole purpose is to resist Israel’s so-called occupation, to producing television shows that demonize Israel and the Jews, to this day, the Palestinian Authority has failed to create the social conditions on the ground necessary for peace. And Fatah and Washington were surprised when a majority of uncompromising, militant Hamas members were elected to the Palestinian Parliament in 2006, or that the majority of Palestinian society remains unwilling to accept Israel’s right to exist.

If the current Palestinian leadership were interested in promoting its people and the prospect for peace, it would be better served by building democratic institutions, laying down an infrastructure that will allow for social mobility, and supporting PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s infrastructure building instead of Islamist groups who feed on destruction.

Changing Course

U.S. opinion on Israel and the Middle East as a whole is not monolithic, nor is it frozen in time. Since 1967, it has undergone significant shifts with some groups becoming more favorable toward Israel and others less so. Nevertheless, as polls illustrate, supporting Israel has become an American value, even if the current president feels otherwise.

President Obama’s embrace of the Palestinian Authority and its priorities has not garnered support for the U.S. either from the Palestinian people or the larger Arab world. In fact, his plan backfired. Instead of understanding Obama’s policies as a U.S. step away from Israel and enter into negotiations, the Palestinian leaders demanded a new precondition from Israel—a settlement construction freeze—based on perceived Obama backing. A take-only relationship indeed.

The question that remains is whether or not the president understands the damage his policies have caused U.S.-Israeli relations, and if he has what it takes to change course.

Asaf Romirowsky is a Philadelphia-based Middle East analyst, a lecturer in history at Pennsylvania State University, and an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Forum.